Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Why Isn't Obama Doing Better - My Take

Everybody has an opinion on this, from David Brooks - who says Obama is too much of a sojourner - to Andrew Sullivan, who thinks McCain is lucking out due to the improvements on the ground in Iraq.

But I think they've all missed the obvious answer. Hillary Clinton.

Hillary was the one who revealed how to defeat Obama: portray him as alien, unamerican, an elitist John Kerry crossed with a black panther. She stumbled onto that strategy after it was too late, and it was why loyal Democrats grew frustrated with her. Every day that it was no longer statistically possible for her to win but she continued with her attacks was another day she was cutting into the chances of a Democratic President. The RNC just lifted her playbook and has run with it with even more gusto. For a time there, the two were even teamed up, and there was little distinction between Lanny Davis and Fox News.

Yes, it's true that this line of attack is a more complicated smear campaign than the one used four years ago against Kerry. It basically asks the public to hold two incompatible views of the candidate at the same time: that the candidate is both aloof and calculating (when he does something we like) and an unhinged zealot (when he does something we don't).

Because of its inherent cognitive dissidence, such an attack doesn't kill its victim right away, as Bush was able to do by Swift-boating Kerry...it has a slow seeping effect as continued attacks paint the candidate between a rock and hard place: do something safe and "American" and you're a fake who panders; do something controversial and your a flake who can't be trusted. It's how the RNC was able to have two hard-hitting negative ads ready for Obama at the same time, one if he visited troops in Germany and one if he didn't. Visit the troops and you're a fake. Don't visit them and you're a flake. Like newspapermen who print "He Lives!" "He Dies!" as they await the outcome of an accident, the story is the same whatever the candidates decides his actions to be, because they build off the same the basic premise: you can't trust this man.

But as Hillary showed, if played consistently, over time, such an attack builds momentum. That's what McCain is doing now, and why he was able to wipe out the bounce from Obama's wildly successful overseas trip in a matter of days.

And, as many have pointed out, so far, Obama has yet to really sully his hands with McCain. Not that McCain hasn't given him plenty of amo: calling his wife a Buffalo Chip or having his "senior moments"

But Obama - and rightly so, I think - wants to win this thing without completely throwing out the idea of a "new politics." And he has plenty of perfectly legitimate policy issues with which to bash McCain, which he has begun to do.

Listen, Obama's lead has started to return - it's back to a 4-point lead today, about the most he's typically held since June. Why? Because he's back in town and able to pay attention and rebut the attacks, using his grace and humor to make them seem silly. Whereas Kerry seemed to wither under the attacks, become more whiny, and, truth be told, a little hard to follow. And if you couldn't make sense of him, then maybe those attacks were right. But when Obama's around and paying attention, he's able to diffuse this strategy most of the time.

And, ultimately, the cognitive dissident approach requires two things to work: it requires that the public really not be paying all that much attention to the candidate you're attacking. And it also requires that the alternative candidate put forward a master narrative as to why they are so much better. That's what Hillary, at the end of her campaign, was able to do: drive confusion about Obama, and go out on the stump as a star.

The RNC may have mastered Hillary's narrative, but so far, the thing they seem to be missing is Hillary. McCain, when it comes down to it, just doesn't seem to offer as attractive an alternative.

But until Obama can get up there, next to McCain, and let the public see the difference - and until Obama gets off defense and starts driving McCain's story a bit - his lead is going to be narrow. Right now, the public thinks they know McCain, and they just can't be sure of which Obama they're seeing. But he's got another 100 days to paint the picture.

The real trick the Republicans have been able to pull off is defining McCain as the competent underdog up against the celebrity empty suit. If with the Reverend Write, Bill Ayers, flag pins, Ossama, aloofness, cynicism, false hope, Chicago cronyism, Presidential presumptuousness, woman-hating, terrorist-loving, Brittneyism, and uppity negroism, all being pinned to his tail, all while jetting around the world for ten days, this relatively fresh face is still running four points ahead of the familiar "independent" pol and the RNC's well-oiled attack machine, he's doing pretty well. And he hasn't even picked a running mate, flagged a couple of big-themed, hot-button sound-bites, or given his nomination speech. Or pulled out his big guns: letting his campaign surrogates off the leash to let the public really see what his opponent is like.

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